Withstanding Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick is perhaps the only major director who has achieved tremendous success in both a classic and contemporary Hollywood context. From Doctor Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick has clearly distinguished himself as a wonderful craftsman.
The best aspect of watching a “great film” is upon several viewings, one can walk away with several different experiences. Historically, The Shining is deemed an American classic within the horror genre. Yet, the film essentially remains void of violence and murder. With the exception of Dick Hallorann, the housekeeper and only African American in the film, no one dies. An exhaustive reading of the narrative could provide an alternative to the horror experience.
The Shining provides an introspection of a family’s winter getaway. Opportunity has landed Jack, his wife and son in a remote location for the winter, the Overlook Hotel. A glimpse into the past reveals the hotel’s history, a Mount Olympus of sorts for a small affluent society of debacle and materialistic excess. This glimpse provides the basis of strange occurrences, thus the “horror” effect, that unfold within the narrative.
One could read Halloran as a surrogate victim of reciprocal violence, displacing the sacrificial ritual violence of the American Family. We, as an audience, cannot watch Jack brutally murder his wife and child. Yet, given the genre in which The Shining falls, murder is inevitable. A surrogate must step in to quench the thirst of violence. Someone has to die. In the case of The Shining, Dick Hallorann’s life sufficiently dams the river of violence.
The notion of a sacrificial process proves most engaging in examining potentially violent milieus. It’s a double-edged sword within the setting of The Shining, physically and spiritually cutting into the construction of characters and their motivation. The term “sacrificial victim” isn’t exactly the proper term to use in describing Dick Hallorann. On one hand, the end of Hallorann’s life in effect serves as surrogate offering to contain the onslaught of potential ritual violence in the Hotel. Notable film critic Pauline Kael references a literary sacrifice in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, thus implying a historical footing for concept. On the other hand, Hallorann’s life itself serves as both a physical and philosophical vehicle of escape. However, the character is never the actual sacrifice. The wife and child are the sacrifice. Hallorann is the surrogate victim for the sacrifice of Jack’s wife and child and thus extremely important to the plot of the film. Still, the narrative’s structure clouds a clear reading of Hallorann as anything other than a convenient scapegoat. Quite simply put, the racial negative connotations mask the noble attributes of his character.
Without a doubt, The Shining is a contemporary American classic and a “must see”. I would also encourage everyone to entertain an alternative reading.